Friday, August 11, 2006

Horse's Ass

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That's an exceedingly odd number.

Why was that gauge used?

Because that's the way they built them in England, and English expatriates built the US Railroads.

Why did the English build them like that?

Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that's the gauge they used.

Why did "they" use that gauge then?

Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing!

Okay! Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing?

Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that's the spacing of the wheel ruts.

So who built those old rutted roads?

Imperial Rome built the fi rst long distance roads in Europe (and England) for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.

And the ruts in the roads?

Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot.

And may the bureaucracies live forever.

So the next time you are handed a spec and told we have always done it that way and wonder what horse's ass came up with that, you may be exactly right, because the Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommo date the back ends of two war horses.

Now the twist to the story...

When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster r ockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah.

The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel.

The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses' behinds.

So, a major Space Shuttle design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a Horse's Ass.

And you thought that being a Horse's Ass was not important??

More on "Horse's Ass".

4 comments:

Irina Tsukerman said...

That is INCREDIBLY fascinating. I had no idea!!!

Yves said...

I feel very reassured by this information. I see the young and ignorant changing things for change's sake, and I'm often muttering, "Why can't they leave things alone?" It was a big mistake when the UK started to adopt the metric system. Such is our conservatism, the process remains incomplete. For example the Englishman has the right to buy a pint of beer in a pub, but wine is sold in 75 centilitre bottles. Our distances are measured in miles but our petrol is now sold in litres, so it's difficult to calculate how many miles per gallon we are getting from our motor vehicle.

Cars used to be sold according to their "horsepower". Quite right too. If we researched it, we might find that lady's dress sizes are based on the backside of a horse too.

Ranjani said...

Your blog is truly entertaining, witty, and insightful, and this entry is very interesting...a horse's ass? Wow. Keep up the good work, I'm looking forward to reading more :).

Anonymous said...

Hate to bring down the party but you are mostly wrong on that whole horses ass thing.

http://www.snopes.com/history/american/gauge.asp